Seward and OED3

Note: pages in our 18c Leverhulme study section were originally published on the website in 2010. Links have since been checked and updated.

Value of Seward as OED3 source

The previous pages have illustrated some interesting features of Anna Seward’s writing. Her poetry, quoted only very little in OED1 (and therefore OED2), is highly conventional in diction, and participates in a tradition of canonical literary writing dominated by male poets both inside and outside the OED – Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Cowper, Walter Scott, Keats, Shelley, and others. It contains very few unique usages and comparatively few first usages or distinctive usages. In Justified neglect? EOED argues that, notwithstanding its conventional character, Seward’s poetry – or at any rate similar contemporary texts written by women – deserves much higher representation in OED.

In striking contrast to her poetry, Seward’s prose is brimming with lexical neologisms. By OED’s own account, these are to be found principally in her letters, though it may well be that her other prose has this characteristic too. Around half of the total number of quotations from Seward’s work in OED have been for a first use of a word or sense, a literally extraordinary proportion. Just under half again of these first quotations (44 out of 113) are for a uniquely attested word or sense, i.e. a hapax legomenon. This looks a very striking rate of lexical innovation (for qualifications see our initial discussion at First quotations). The usages themselves are interesting too – vivid and communicative – and they give Seward’s letters a very different character from her poetry.

OED3 use of Seward to date

Note added August 2018: Since this original survey was carried out in autumn 2009, OED has increased its Seward quotations from the 2009 total of 261 (i.e. 235 in OED2 plus 16 by then added to the OED3 revision) to a new total of 311.   

Given the particular value of Seward’s prose, as indicated in OED’s own past treatment, we might expect that Seward’s work would be subjected to some considerable new scrutiny in OED3 – especially in the light of the following three factors:

  • OED3’s stated aims of increasing the Dictionary’s coverage both of the 18th century generally and of female-authored sources in particular (see OED3 quotation sources)
  • OED’s increased documentation (several hundred new quotations to date) of canonical male authors of the 18th century such as Henry Fielding, Defoe, and Swift (see further Men and women compared)
  • OED’s traditional concern, as a historical dictionary of the language, to identify and quote the first recorded usage of any word or sense (see General remarks on our page on Seward’s first quotations).

However, OED3 has not quoted in any substantial quantities from Seward’s work. As of September 2009, the revision has added just under 30 new quotations from her writing: i.e., a small number in total. Of these, only 10 are from her prose, which we might have thought to be a very rich potential source, especially for first quotations, while 16 are from her poetry. Interestingly, only three of the additional quotations are first quotations – and all three are from her poetry (for details, see Seward’s new quotations at the foot of this page).

Why so few?

Why is the new quotation rate from Seward so low in OED3? Probably it reflects the new methods of compilation the OED3 now uses. Recognizing that OED has in the past tended to quote from selected literary sources in huge numbers, OED3 is now trying to spread its quotation coverage across many more sources, quoting less intensively from any individual source. The theory would be that while Seward herself might not get a lot of individual attention, other sources like Seward (i.e. female, writing in the same period and in the same genres) will be broadly represented in the Dictionary.

Naturally, until we have more information from OED3 about their rate of quotation from different sources, or better electronic search tools (identifying the gender of the source quoted, for example), we cannot see whether this is happening in the revised portions of the Dictionary. (For a study of OED3’s increased rate of quotation from the canonical female author Virginia Woolf, see Brewer 2009d).

The question why the same limitation in OED3 quotation rate has not applied to canonical male authors may also be explained by OED3’s new – and developing – methodology. When work on the revision started, the lexicographers collected large numbers of new quotations from electronic databases of historical material. But at this early stage in the creation of such databases – i.e. the 1990s and early 2000s – canonical literary sources predominated, favouring such male authors as Dryden, Fielding, Dickens, etc., who were of course already well-quoted in OED. The character of such electronic databases has been changing to become more inclusive, meaning that the ratio of canonical to non-canonical material which OED gathers electronically will also be changing. The result is that quotations from female-authored and non-literary sources are likely to rise as the revision continues its way through the alphabet. (An important example of such an electronic resource is ECCO, used by OED3 since 2004 or so, which makes vast quantities of non-literary 18th-century material available for lexical searching). OED3’s own historical reading has been in almost exclusively non-canonical texts, but since this is carried out by hand, it has inevitably yielded fewer quotations than those accumulated from electronic databases.

Again, we cannot investigate whether the proportion of canonical citation is declining in OED until we have more information from OED3 itself (e.g. on the total number of new quotations added).

All these matters are under review at OED3 and the lexicographers will release more information and analysis of their use of sources in due course.

Unrecorded usages in Seward’s work

EOED’s reading of a small sample of Seward’s poetry has identified few usages completely unrecorded in OED to date, but many which would supply existing deficiencies in OED’s coverage of the eighteenth-century and of its representation of female sources. Our reading of a sample of her letters, on the other hand, which has only just begun, confirms the implication of OED1’s own evidence that her epistolary writing is exceptionally rich in neologisms of the sort the Dictionary is especially interested in recording. It also contains further hapax legomena, of a similar character to those OED1 previously recorded from her work, and a smaller number of postdatings (see further Unrecorded usages in Anna Seward’s poetry).

Particularly notable examples, from the alphabet range already revised by OED3, are:

  • mannerist (1790), as in ‘the author is so much of a mannerist, that every different personage of the novel writes and speaks in precisely the same style – a style loaded with epithets’ (Letters: vol. 3, p. 9). The first quotation for this sense, ‘a person who adopts a mannered style of writing’, is dated 1813 (OED3 draft revision June 2009)
  • Miss Mollyish (1790), as in ‘Clean, pretty, clever, faithful, sober, home-keeping Thomas has a Miss Mollyish terror of a gun, and is but a poor horseman’ (Letters: vol. 3, p. 38). The first quotation for this term, meaning ‘Effeminate’ (derived from ‘Miss Molly’, i.e. ‘effeminate or homosexual man or boy’), is dated 1813 (OED3 draft revision June 2008).
  • naked (1791), of water (sense 7a: ‘clear, without weeds’); OED3 (draft revision June 2008) dates the last use of this obsolete term to 1721. Writing of ‘crystal waters in which alders and willows dip their long arms’, Seward refers to her ‘life-long aversion to naked waters’, for example the ‘tressless banks’ of the Trent (OED’s only quotation – from Carlyle – for tressless, as yet unrevised, is dated 1865). See her Letters: vol. 3, p. 63).

Note added August 2018: OED3 has since antedated this sense of Mannerist to 1788 and has added the Seward quotations for Miss Mollyish and naked respectively.

Like her poetry, Seward’s letters also contain many examples of 18th-century usage undocumented by OED to date. It is clear therefore that both bodies of work will amply repay re-reading for the Dictionary.

Seward’s new quotations in OED3

OED3’s new quotations are listed in two groups below, first from her poetry and secondly from her prose. The words themselves are much less striking than those for which she is quoted in OED1, and a much smaller proportion are first quotations: 3 out of 36, with no hapax legomena, and all three found in her poetry. The character of OED3’s new citations from Seward’s prose to date (2009) is thus quite different from that of OED1’s existing quotations.

OED3’s new quotations from Seward’s poetry
  1. absent (as in ‘absent weeks’, i.e. a period of time when a person is away): Poet. Wks (1810) I. 27.
  2. love-lit (compound adj.): a1809, ‘Long shall thy love-lit eyes be dim If soon thou art not bravely free’, from ‘Advice to a Young Lady’, Poet. Wks. (1810) III. 63. [here Seward provides the only quotation other than Edmund Blunden in 1948 (OED3 draft revision September 2009)]
  3. marum (name of plant): Poet. Wks. (1810) III. 38.
  4. mazarine (i.e. rich blue colour, applied to the poi-bird): 1780 Elegy Capt. Cook 12.
  5. midnight cart: 1796 Llangollen Vale 2.
  6. mine, v. (sense 2c: ‘poet. Of a river: to force its way beneath’). [Seward’s is the second quotation after 1807 (OED3 draft revision June 2009)]
  7. misleading: 1799 Orig. Sonnets 71.
  8. mural: 1796 Llangollen Vale 2.
  9. murky: 1783 Poet. Wks. (1810) II. 139: ‘Rise, kindred dunces, from your drear abodes..till your growing numbers equal those That hurl’d at Pope’s bright verse their murky prose!’. [Seward’s example is the first quotation for OED3 sense 6 (draft revision June 2008), ‘obscure, confused’]
  10. never-altering: 1809 Poet. Wks. (1810) II. 59. [Seward’s quotation is between two widely spaced ones of 1696 and 1999 (OED3 draft revision September 2009)]
  11. opaque: Poet. Wks (1810) I. 29.
  12. pacific, adj.: 1780 Elegy Capt. Cook 8.
  13. perspective: This is a first quotation in OED3 (draft revision September 2009) s.v. P3c: ‘In proportion; correctly regarded in terms of relative importance; in context’: a1809 Poet. Wks. (1810) II. 8 Hope, contemplating the stinted plan, Throws it in perspective, and calms our fears.
  14. promptress: a1809 Poet. Wks. (1810) II. 125.
  15. red planet: Llangollen Vale 3.
  16. voiced: 1799 Orig. Sonnets 88.
OED3’s new quotations from Seward’s prose
  1. money: 1788 Lett. (1811) II. 6.
  2. needlework: 1795 Lett. (1811) IV. 93.
  3. paraphrastic: 1789 Let. 7 Jan. (1811) II. 21.
  4. poked: a1809 Let. 25 Jan. (1811) I. 11.
  5. pretty: 1791 Let. 30 July (1811) II. x.
  6. purposed, adj.: 1788 Lett. (1811) II. 151.
  7. queasiness: 1786 Lett. 27 Oct. I. 204.
  8. quiet: 1791 Lett. (1811) III. 80.
  9. quiz: 1806 Let. 26 Mar. in W. Partington Private Letter-bks. Sir Walter Scott (1930).
  10. reasonless: 1804 Mem. Dr. Darwin 89. [both OED3 and OED2 have a second quotation from Seward in this entry, for a different sense of the word].

Note 1: OED3 has omitted Seward’s OED1 quotations for lyingly and novel-reading (both from her letters).

Note 2: Comparing electronic search results for Seward in OED2 and OED3 is complicated both by the dropping in OED3 of these two quotations (see Note 1 above) and by OED3’s different conventions of source-attribution. In at least three instances (s.v. girlism, mal-influence, moleism) OED1 (hence OED2) cited two Seward quotations for a single sense, attributing the second to ibid. The electronic search tools in OED2 count this as one quotation in each case. In OED3, however, Seward’s name is substituted for ibid., and hence the electronic search tools count two quotations in each case.

Last updated on 30 July 2019